Ranking College Football's Top Big-Play Threats in 2018

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistMarch 7, 2018

Ranking College Football's Top Big-Play Threats in 2018

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    Field-flipping plays are vital to winning college football games, and the ability to change everything with one touch adds an element that the majority of teams don't have.

    When you've got a player who is a threat to take the ball to the end zone every time he touches it, it's up to the coaches to figure out the best way to use the biggest weapon in their arsenal.

    Once Arizona inserted quarterback Khalil Tate into the starting lineup full-time a season ago, the Wildcats became a threat to beat anybody on their schedule. Though Stanford was left with a huge gulf following the departure of Christian McCaffrey in 2016, the Cardinal had another stud waiting in the wings—Bryce Love, who parlayed his first full season starting into a Heisman Trophy runner-up finish. 

    There is only one signal-caller on the list, but college football is loaded with running backs and wide receivers who are on the cusp of a big play every time the ball is snapped. Get these guys in space and watch them go.

    Ranking players on their production, big-play ability and the opportunity to improve this year, let's take a look at the top big-play guys returning in 2018. These are the types of playmakers who make watching college football fun.

10. J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State Running Back

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    When it comes to production, running back J.K. Dobbins was one of the best freshman ball-carriers in the nation a season ago. Though he didn't have quite as many big plays as he's capable, it's only a matter of time before he breaks out in Urban Meyer's offense.

    His 16 runs of more than 20 yards and four runs of 50-plus put him in the top 10 in both categories. So, whether he's moving the chains or moving the numbers on the scoreboard, the former star recruit from La Grange, Texas, showed he can do it all.

    At 5'10", 212 pounds, Dobbins is the kind of runner who can carry the ball every down, but he doesn't have to, with Mike Weber there with him. The bruising runner will return for his senior season, which will keep Dobbins fresh as a sophomore.

    Last year, that was a formula that worked perfectly for the Buckeyes. Dobbins finished his first year in Columbus with 1,403 rushing yards on 194 carries, averaging 7.2 yards per carry. Weber was third with 640 yards (6.2 average) and second with 10 touchdowns. Dobbins had seven on the ground and one through the air. 

    Dobbins saved his best game for a huge 27-21 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, rushing 17 times for 174 yards. That game featured runs of 77 and 53 yards, and though he had a monster game, he had the smart answer when asked about the performance after the game.

    "This trophy doesn't belong to me; it belongs to my offensive linemen," Dobbins told the Lantern's Colin Hass-Hill.

    With wise-beyond-his-years quotes like that, he'll have those holes keep opening. Dobbins showed he knows what to do with them when they come.

9. Anthony Johnson, Buffalo Wide Receiver

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    The Buffalo Bulls enjoyed a bit of a MAC resurgence a season ago under coach Lance Leipold, going 6-6 and finishing 4-4 in the conference. That's a step in the right direction, and a big reason for the uptick was an offense that finished first in the league passing and third overall.

    That's because Leipold was able to deploy a star on the perimeter in receiver Anthony Johnson.

    The 6'2", 207-pound junior wound up with 76 catches for 1,356 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging 17.8 yards per grab in his first year after transferring from Iowa Western Community College. Not only did he prove he could carry the offense, he also could go deep at will.

    Johnson finished with 49 catches for more than 10 yards, and 24 of those went for more than 20, which put him behind only Boise State's Cedrick Wilson in that department. The bigger the play, the more Johnson's name was dotted on the game-changing play leaderboard.

    He had nine catches for more than 40 yards, with six of those going for more than 50. He may not ever be as much of a household name as his cousin, Jadeveon Clowney, but if he keeps posting numbers like that, the NFL will come calling soon.

    Johnson comes from a high school (South Pointe, in Rock Hill, South Carolina), rich with talent. It produced Clowney, Johnathan Joseph, Cordarrelle Patterson and Jonathan Meeks (currently an NFL free agent). Johnson could have followed in their NFL footsteps, but he's coming back to Buffalo and the Bulls are glad he will.

8. Aaron Cephus, Rice Wide Receiver

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    As a freshman a season ago, Rice wide receiver Aaron Cephus was thrust into the role of the go-to pass-catcher when he wasn't really ready.

    While that showed in his drops, he also led the nation with 24.9 yards per catch. That inconsistency led SBNation's Bill Connelly to say Cephus was "hilariously all-or-nothing."

    A large part of Cephus' development hinges on who will step up for Rice at quarterback. That's expected to be Miklo Smalls, who took over midseason a year ago and played well at times. It will help the Owls that new head coach Mike Bloomgren is a proven offensive mind.

    A year ago, Bloomgren was the offensive coordinator at Stanford, and he helped David Shaw build some excellent units in Palo Alto. Last year, K.J. Costello thrived at quarterback for the Cardinal. If Smalls does the same, Cephus will explode in 2018.

    The sophomores can be excellent puzzle pieces around which Bloomgren can build a serviceable offense.

    "Me and Miklo Smalls, we're a duo," Cephus told the Houston Chronicle's Glynn A. Hill last year. "We're not roommates but we might as well be."

    Last year, he was third nationally with six catches for 50-plus yards. At 6'4", 205 pounds, Cephus looks the part, and he should improve upon his 25 catches for 622 yards from a season ago. Yes, it's a small sample size, but there were big results.

    Now, he's just got to improve his consistency.

7. Darrell Henderson, Memphis Running Back

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    With Riley Ferguson and Anthony Miller heading to the NFL, the Memphis Tigers offense is going to have a new look in 2018. Perhaps that means big-play running back Darrell Henderson will have even more opportunities to show what he can do.

    The Tigers certainly need him to improve upon some ridiculous numbers from a season ago.

    Will it be easy? No. Without a guaranteed passing game on which opposing defenses to key, Henderson may find the going tougher. But he's the kind of athlete who can do things with the ball in space that few can.

    The 5'9", 200-pound running back from powerhouse South Panola High School in Mississippi had seven carries for more than 40 yards, which was tied for sixth-most in college football a season ago. He had 11 runs of 30 or more yards, which was tied for fifth.

    Part of the reason Iowa State was able to beat Memphis in the Liberty Bowl was because it controlled the trenches in a game where Henderson was injured. The Tigers missed their big-play threat. He was the first Memphis runner since 2009 to run for more than 1,000 yards.

    Coach Mike Norvell has a history of getting the most out of his offenses, so returning three of his top running backs from a season ago will be a big deal. If David Moore goes from Ferguson's primary backup to a productive signal-caller this year, Memphis won't skip a beat.

    The Tigers just need enough of a passing game to loosen up defenses for Henderson to speed around and through.

6. Diontae Johnson, Toledo Wide Receiver

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    You've probably not heard of Diontae Johnson, but the Toledo receiver is the second MAC pass-catcher on the list. He's a big reason why the Rockets transitioned from a run-heavy offense to one that liked to air it out a season ago.

    Johnson teamed with quarterback Logan Woodside to make Toledo a formidable threat that finished 11-3 and won the MAC. Though the season ended on a sour note with a demoralizing 34-0 loss to Appalachian State in the Dollar General Bowl, it was still an impressive year.

    It's unclear who will replace Woodside as he's off to the NFL, but coach Jason Candle will be able to provide whoever it is with a pair of formidable threats on the perimeter. Cody Thompson's decision to return to Toledo for a fifth year was huge for the offense. A first-team all-MAC selection in 2016, Thompson averaged 19.2 yards per catch last year before suffering a season-ending leg injury. 

    It was also big for Johnson, who wound up with 74 catches for 1,278 yards and 13 touchdowns a season ago, averaging nearly 18 yards per grab.

    That's the kind of big-play ability that you can't teach. The Ruskin, Florida, native is speedy, and he was tied for 12th nationally with 19 catches for more than 20 yards and seven grabs for 40 yards.

    "He's a threat to score any time he touches the ball," Candle told the Toledo Blade's Brian Buckey.

    With Thompson returning, Johnson doesn't have to do it all, but he will be the guy who can take the lid off defenses if Toledo can just find somebody to get him the ball. No backup threw more than six passes in 2017 for the Rockets, but Johnson and Thompson must make things easier for the new signal-caller.

5. A.J. Brown, Mississippi Wide Receiver

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    Alabama's Calvin Ridley and Texas A&M's Christian Kirk left school a year early and are surefire first-round NFL draft selections. That means it's time for the least-appreciated wide receiver in the SEC to become the best.

    He may have been that already.

    Ole Miss' A.J. Brown was a high-profile recruit for former coach Hugh Freeze, and he's done nothing but shine so far in Oxford, teaming with D.K. Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge for a formidable trio a season ago.

    Thanks to a bowl ban due to recruiting violations under Freeze, few talked about the 6-6 Rebels a season ago, but that didn't stop Brown from being possibly the most under-the-radar superstar in the nation. He finished with 75 catches for 1,252 yards and 11 touchdowns.

    When Shea Patterson went down with a season-ending injury, it didn't matter. Jordan Ta'amu stepped right in and was able to continue lighting up the passing statistics because of players like the 6'1", 225-pound Brown.

    The rising junior looks like a three-and-done player for the Rebels because he's the complete package. He's big and physical enough to go across the middle and get the tough yards, but he also makes the game-breakers.

    Last season, he had six catches of 50 or more yards, which was third nationally. He was 10th in catches of more than 30 yards and had three grabs of 70-plus. This year, with a growing rapport shared with Ta'amu and his two compadres back, it'll be a big-time year for Brown.

4. Emanuel Hall, Missouri Wide Receiver

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    When a team has a stud quarterback, the receivers are the biggest beneficiaries, and that was the case in 2017 at Missouri. Once coach Barry Odom decided to just let Drew Lock throw the ball all over the field, the Tigers' fortunes turned.

    Four Mizzou receivers finished with more than 400 receiving yards. Though J'Mon Moore was the biggest star of the group, finishing the season with 65 grabs for 1,082 yards and 10 touchdowns, Emanuel Hall wasn't far behind.

    While Moore could beat teams in the short-yardage passing game or deep, and freshman tight end Albert Okwuegbunam was a red-zone threat with a team-leading 11 touchdowns, Hall was the deep-play man. He had 33 catches and 817 yards, leading the SEC in yards per catch (24.8).

    The only player on this list (Rice's Cephus) who was ahead of him in that category may not be up there again without a proven quarterback returning, but Hall is a safe bet. The senior runs excellent routes and is a veteran who is on the same page with Lock.

    There is a ton of optimism surrounding Odom's third season at his alma mater, and it's because of guys like Hall coming back.

    He could see his numbers balloon in '18. Just about every playmaker on Mizzou's offense returns from a season ago. If new offensive coordinator Derek Dooley doesn't fumble away all that talent, the Tigers may be a dark horse in the SEC East.

    If that winds up being the case, it's because Lock flung the ball all over the field and guys like Hall were on the receiving end. Look for Hall to end his career in Columbia with a flourish.

3. Khalil Tate, Arizona Quarterback

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    There aren't a lot of big-play quarterbacks on this list normally because if we counted all the downfield passes, there wouldn't be any room for other positions on the list.

    But Khalil Tate is an exception to that rule.

    The rising junior is one of the top few playmakers in college football, and if he takes a major step forward in 2018, he will be on plenty of Heisman Trophy short lists. Not only can he beat teams with a laser arm, he's also a world-class athlete who can fly.

    It's going to be fun for first-year coach Kevin Sumlin to inherit a weapon like Tate. Last year in Rich Rodriguez's system, Tate had 44 rushes for more than 10 yards, and he ranked fourth nationally with 20 runs of more than 20 yards.

    He was second nationally with 15 30-plus yard rushes, 11 went for more than 40, seven went for more than 50 and an eye-popping five went for more than 70 yards. If that's not a big-play threat, there isn't one in college football.

    In other words, Tate is a next-level star who just happens to touch the ball on every single offensive play. He's the closest thing in college football to Michael Vick since the left-hander roamed the field for Virginia Tech in 2000.

    In an otherworldly performance against Colorado in a 45-42 win, Tate needed just 14 rushes to set the single-game rushing record for a quarterback, accumulating 327 yards for a 23.4 average. He added four touchdowns in that game as well.

    If Sumlin uses him correctly, he should only improve this year.

2. Marquise Brown, Oklahoma Wide Receiver

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    Much like Diontae Johnson, it's going to be difficult for Marquise Brown to duplicate his 2017 statistics because he lost his star quarterback.

    In Brown's case, it's Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield, who'll almost certainly be a high first-round NFL draft pick.

    Fortunately for the Sooners' rising junior star, he has a capable replacement at quarterback in Kyler Murray. The former top-rated recruit and Texas A&M transfer looks the part, and he was brilliant backing up Mayfield a season ago. With weapons all around Murray, he has everything he needs to be successful.

    Rising sophomore CeeDee Lamb and running backs Rodney Anderson and Trey Sermon will make things easier for coach Lincoln Riley, even though he's got to find a way to fill the massive void of generational talent and exceptional leader Mayfield.

    But the biggest returning weapon is Brown, one of the fastest players in the entire country.

    "There's fast and then there's on-another-level fast," said College of the Canyons coach Ted Iacenda to SI.com's Michael McKnight last year, discussing his former player. "He's the second one."

    He was a coveted JUCO transfer a season ago who looked too small to make an immediate impact when he stepped onto campus. That couldn't have been further from the truth. Riley found multiple ways to use Brown, getting him in space. 

    The 5'11", 162-pound Hollywood, Florida, native responded with 57 catches for 1,095 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging more than 19 yards per grab. He was third nationally with nine catches for more than 40 yards and second in the country with four of those going for more than 60.

1. Bryce Love, Stanford Running Back

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    The nation's most explosive player just happens to be the best.

    Stanford's Bryce Love made a lot of folks in Palo Alto, California, happy when he followed up his Heisman Trophy runner-up junior campaign with the announcement that he would return to school for his final season with the Cardinal.

    With David Shaw's track record of getting Love and Christian McCaffrey touches before him, there's no question Love's production should continue to rise in 2018. 

    Nobody had any questions about Love's home-run hitting ability with his world-class speed, but he proved a season ago that he could be an every-down, between-the-tackles running back, too. That experience and consistency competing at a high level in the Pac-12 will look great on his NFL resume.

    But he's a superstar because of his big-play ability. 

    Last season, he led the nation with 30 runs of 20-plus yards, with 24 of those going for 30 or more. As the numbers increased, Love still had more game-breaking plays than anybody else. He had 15 runs of 40-plus yards, 13 of more than 50 and seven of more than 60.

    Once he found daylight, it normally resulted in six points. He was the most dangerous player in college football, and he did it from the very beginning of the year. In his first six games, he had runs of 75, 69, 68, 62, 61, 59, 53, 51, 47, 43, 39, 39, 32, 31, 31, 30, 27, 25, 21, and 20 yards.

    "The big thing before me and Christian got here was the thought you had to be so-and-so big to be able to play the running back position here," Love said on a Pac-12 teleconference last year, according to 247Sports' Chris Hummer.

    If that's the case, Love is plenty big enough. His plays speak for themselves.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats are courtesy of Sports Reference and CFBStats.com, and recruiting data is courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings.   

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.